Torrance residents fear continued use of hydrofluoric acid at Torrance Refinery endangers community

Protesters hold signs. One woman's sign reads in part, "PBF Refinery Profits Before Families."
Isabel Douvan Schwartz and other demonstrators rallied in Torrance on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of an explosion at the refinery there and the dangers they say the facility still poses to their community.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Torrance resident Isabel Douvan Schwartz said she worries about a major earthquake hitting her community, largely because of the impact it could have on the massive Torrance Refinery two miles from her home.

The biggest concern is that the refinery continues to use the highly toxic chemical hydrofluoric acid to process fuel, a practice that Schwartz and other activists want to see stopped.

“If hydrofluoric acid or modified hydrofluoric acid is released, then it forms into a ground-hugging toxic cloud that travels with the wind,” Schwartz said. “It can cause death and permanent serious injury to those exposed to it.”

A woman holds a sign that says "Ban toxic MHF."
Hortensia Galvez participates in the rally.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Schwartz was among dozens of demonstrators who held a rally at Columbia Park on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of an explosion at the then Exxon Mobil Refinery that injured four workers and in which debris from the blast landed near tanks containing hydrofluoric acid, according to federal regulators.

The Torrance Refinery Action Alliance organized the rally. It said that safer alternatives exist and that many of the refineries in California no longer use hydrofluoric acid.

PBF Energy, which purchased the refinery in 2016, issued a statement Saturday rebutting the activists’ accusations.

“We are aware of the misleading and inaccurate claims by the activist group, which they have been making for years,” the statement said. “The cleaner-burning gasoline sold in California requires alkylate to comply with the most stringent tailpipe emissions requirements in the world. The Torrance Refinery has been safely and reliably manufacturing alkylate for transportation fuels using hydrogen fluoride (HF), including modified hydrogen fluoride (MHF), in its Alkylation Unit for more than 60 years, without any offsite impact.”


On the refinery’s website, PBF Energy argues that Californians live in a state with strict environmental regulations, yet still can drive wherever they want in the vehicles of their choice “with the reassurance their local refineries produce the world’s cleanest-burning gasoline using process called alkylation.”

Exxon Mobil was fined $566,600 in penalties Thursday after a large blast at the company’s Torrance refinery in February injured four workers.

Aug. 13, 2015

As regulators pointed out, the explosion in 2015 did not directly involve hydrofluoric acid but that debris came close to hitting tanks with the chemical inside.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, issued 19 citations against Exxon Mobil, most of which were classified as serious, for workplace safety and health violations. Exxon Mobil was fined $566,600.

Protesters hold signs
The Torrance Refinery Action Alliance organized the rally and march to protest inaction by the industry and regulators.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Cal/OSHA found the company neglected to eliminate known hazardous conditions and “intentionally failed to comply with state safety standards,” likely resulting in workers being seriously injured or killed, according to the agency’s Department of Industrial Relations.

Cal/OSHA also determined that the company’s management knew the electrostatic precipitator — which exploded in 2015 — could explode during a flammable vapor leakage. A safety review in 2007 addressed concerns about the leakage, but the company failed to fix it, state regulators said.


Regulators at the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board reviewed the explosion and found it was “preventable.”

“This is the ninth anniversary of what might have been a catastrophe,” said Jane Affonso, vice president of the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, at Saturday’s rally. “There was an explosion at the Torrance Refinery, which is right over there, and a big piece of equipment came within eight feet of the tank of hydrofluoric acid, and if it had hit it , many people would have died and been injured.”